I watched Mushk Kaleem glide on to the red carpet at the recent 20th Lux Style Awards (LSAs). She wore a bright pink ruffled ball gown with a long structured trail, created by design house Sana Safinaz. Slightly lifting the gown, she positioned herself in front of the cameras, half-turning for the perfect photograph that was very likely to steamroll her into the Best Dressed lists that would follow later.
Any mere mortal would have tripped a few times over the trail before falling, face-first, on to the cameramen clustered around the red carpet.
But this is Mushk Kaleem, towering at her 5 feet 11 inches in a landscape dotted with short models, a dream to watch on the catwalk, the face of myriad fashion campaigns and, later that night, the recipient of the Best Female Model award.
With great savoir faire, she gathered her trail as she went up the few steps to the LSA stage to accept her trophy. The audience clapped dutifully — her win had been expected.
Mushk Kaleem is currently riding the crest of popularity as a fashion model and is keen to stress that she loves being one. But she often steers clear of the fashion fraternity’s politics, and is pretty pragmatic about what she is in it for. More importantly, she’s also very business-savvy, and has many plans for her life beyond…
Mushk has been building quite a portfolio over the past few years; playing both the dulhan [bride] and the sultry femme fatale, hot-stepping down local runways as well as reaching the lofty heights of the Milan Fashion Week (MFW) in 2019. She knows how to work a gown just as well as swing out in a three-piece lawn suit. The LSA win was veritably a no-brainer.
This wasn’t Mushk’s first LSA, though. In 2019, she had won the award for Best Emerging Talent in Fashion. “The trophies look great, decorated on a shelf in my drawing room,” Mushk laughs.
I’m having breakfast with her at a popular café where time and again I catch people glancing at our table — an inevitable consequence of sitting with one of the country’s most ‘it’ fashion models. We plough through our eggs — I plough a bit more, she a bit less, because that’s all part of living the model life — as we dissect the highs of bringing an LSA home.
“The award gives you validation and shuts people’s mouths for some time,” she grins. “It also provides you with the leverage to start charging more for your work. I remember when I won the Emerging Talent award, I increased what I charged for modelling an outfit by just 2,000 rupees. A lot of people complained but I told them that, if the jury felt that I was worth an award, then I certainly deserved to be paid more.”
The next benchmark in her career, being selected as one amongst two models to walk for designer Stella Jean at the Milan Fashion Week, once again provided her with an ego boost, as well as a financial one. The latest LSA trophy is likely to bring in some more lucrative benefits.
“Today, models make a lot of money if they work hard and build strong professional ties. I’m proud to regularly be featured in some of Pakistan’s most high-profile campaigns, working with designers who put a lot of effort into the creative process and don’t resort to mediocrity. I have had to work hard in order to earn their respect.”
But does she also earn money from them? A lot of high-end couturiers are notorious in fashion circles for enlisting models for free, on the premise that being associated with their brand is a worthy remuneration. Others promise payments but then typically slip into the shadows when the time comes to manoeuvre a simple online transfer. These freeloaders are infamous — and include some of local fashion’s most coveted names — and they dole out this treatment not just to hopeful newcomers but also to established models such as Mushk. Does she often encounter such slipshod paymasters?
She muses over it. “Maybe if you had asked me this two years ago, when I was in the midst of a financial crisis, I would have opted not to work with a designer that delayed payments. But at this point in time, when I have done a few TV commercials and am on retainer for a few brands, I can consider the payment as a secondary concern. Being part of a well-conceived, high-end campaign is always an advantage, because it draws other brands towards working with you, hoping to create a similar impact. And you know that the payment will come, even if it comes late.”
She doesn’t name or shame the late paymasters — possibly some of the payments are stuck in transition and putting the names out in print could turn out to be disastrous. Mushk is a great model, but she’s just as business-savvy.
In fact, in the many years that I have known her, interviewed her or bumped into her at fashion weeks, I’ve never known Mushk to be overwhelmed by her glamorous surroundings. She’s there for work and you’ll see some very high fashion images of her from the event. But she isn’t the sort of girl that you’ll find backstage, taking umpteen mirror selfies.
She’ll be slotted for some of the night’s most highly anticipated shows but, more often than not, she’ll skip out on the after-party. Once the work is done, sometimes she just wants to take a breather and pass over the excitement for a good night’s sleep. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I have been able to meet Mushk for an early breakfast. Unlike many of her peers, she doesn’t doze off till late in the afternoon and is up at 8am.
“I’ve just always lived a very disciplined life,” she observes. “I studied for 10 years in a Parsi school, Mama Parsi, and then two years in St. Joseph’s College, and four years in IBA [the Institute of Business Adminsitration]. I have always liked to have things in order. It also helps me manage my personal life. Besides, I don’t have too many friends in the fashion fraternity. It’s just too toxic and fake, with everyone gossiping and unfollowing each other.”
For those who aren’t in the know, in the concentric orbits of Pakistani fashion and entertainment, unfollowing each other on Instagram is equivalent to breaking off a friendship.
I remind her that one of her closest friends, though, is stylist Tabesh Khoja, part of the team at Nabila’s and an inalienable part of the fashion and entertainment world. Tabesh, in fact, is the one who ‘discovered’ Mushk and spurred on her stratospheric rise. She smiles.
“The great thing about Tabesh is that he doesn’t just start off your career. He helps you connect with the right people and, because he has vouched for you, he actually goes the extra mile and grooms you. There aren’t too many people like that.”
Was Tabesh instrumental in ensuring that she didn’t have a tough time following her debut?
“Like I said, he did introduce me to the right people and then, like a domino effect, the job offers came one after the other. But I had to work hard. I remember how people, left right and centre, told me that I needed to get work done on my face, to fix the lopsidedness, thread my eyebrows and have my dark circles removed. I lost a lot of body fat. It wasn’t easy to make my mark as a fashion model. The fashion industry is just so competitive.
“That was just two years ago and now, all of a sudden, there’s all this talk about body positivity. There is no filter anymore, there are girls who are short, tall, all shapes and sizes, featured in campaigns. And you can’t even say anything, because that would make you sound mean!” she laughs.
“And then, during the coronavirus pandemic, hardly any fashion shows took place and now there are all these girls who are considered models who haven’t ever walked the ramp. I mean, if they can’t walk the walk, why are they even in this business?
“It hurts when they are given the same recognition as the girls who have slogged away at a fashion week for four days with minimum pay just to be seen on the catwalk!”
I ask her about another crib that models often have: the truly lacklustre campaigns that they have to be part of in order to earn their bread and butter. Covid-19 steered Pakistani fashion into mundane, commercial territory, which meant that every brand simply wanted to invest in shoots for bridal-wear and desi shalwar qameez.
A very limited number of ateliers tried to push the envelope, but most others created clothes that were sellable but forgettable at best, ghastly at worst. With two LSA trophies to her credit now, is Mushk trying to be more picky about the campaigns that she is a part of?
She pauses — and I already know the answer. Given the rampant bad fashion that prevails in Pakistan, being picky would mean having little or not work at all. “The thing is, if I don’t like a campaign I just don’t post it on my Instagram,” she says, her eyes twinkling.
What about campaigns that Photoshop her beautiful dusky complexion to a generic ‘white’?
“I can’t do anything about how a brand decides to treat a shoot. Early on in my career, I remember working with a major brand, where the in-house photographer came to the make-up artist and selected a skin foundation shade which was four shades lighter than my natural skin colour. The make-up artist had insisted that I would look grey, to which the photographer replied that he would ‘fix’ it.
“To date, I work with the brand and they tend to ‘whiten’ me. I do think that things are changing, however. I see a lot of brands that are now eager to work with tan models.
“I do take a stand, though, when it comes to working with fairness creams. I recently got a very lucrative offer for a fairness cream commercial, and everyone around told me that I should take it because it was great money. I still didn’t. I couldn’t undermine all that I had worked for, for the sake of this one opportunity.”
Moving alongside Mushk’s modelling career is her candle business whose fuse was lit during the Covid-19 lockdown. When she isn’t modelling, Mushk now moonlights at carnivals and other functions with her stock of scented candles, under the eponymous brand name ‘Musk by Mushk’ — ‘Musk’, of course, is a sweet scent while ‘Mushk’ also means ‘fragrance’ in Urdu.
I have seen her standing by a makeshift table, giving her sales pitch to passersby interested in some candle-shopping. “The coronavirus lockdown gave me the chance to come up with a proper business plan. We’ve just expanded to coasters, and soon we’ll be bringing out cheeseboards and platters.”
I comment that the market for locally made scented candles is a fairly clustered one. “But no one’s making them the way I do,” she replies confidently. “By next year, I hope to be able to set up a standalone candle studio.”
She tells me that the one development brought about by her budding candle business is that her mother now uses it as an introduction when describing her career to her friends. “Then she adds, ‘she also models on the side’!” Mushk smiles. “My mother lives in a very old part of Karachi. Modelling as a profession is unfathomable to the people that she knows there. The candle business acts as an apt front.”
It must also not help that, of late, the modelling profession has been associated with a few scandals — the controversies surrounding a certain model from Lahore come to mind.
“Yes, that does make it difficult for my mother to defend my profession — or for my business partner to explain what I do to his family. It makes it tough for all of us, who are genuinely putting in an honest day’s work and don’t have a shady ‘side’ profession paying our bills.”
It’s great though that, unlike many of her peers, she hasn’t turned designer, such as Sadaf Kanwal or Areeba Habib, or made a beeline for an acting career.
“Oh, but I have thought about both career options,” Mushk corrects me. “I may dabble with one or both in the future. But if I ever launch a clothing line, I would like it to focus on the basics that I like wearing: simple, well-cut pants and crop-tops. I would also like to act. I could never play the rotee-dhotee bahu [tear-shedding daughter-in-law], but if a cool opportunity comes my way, I’ll be happy to take it up.”
It does look like Mushk will be shape-shifting into newer avatars in the future. Modelling, perhaps, will be the one constant. “I love modelling,” she stresses a few times, when we are discussing other future career options.
The love — and commitment — shows in her extensive repertoire of work and those two trophies currently holding pride of place in her drawing room.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 31st, 2021